Josh Mandel’s Strange Jewish Journey To Trumpland From Suburban Cleveland
When the Senate took on immigration reform in 2006, it was a Jewish Republican who led the way to approving a comprehensive bill that would provide millions of undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship. The late Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania explained that his decision was guided by his own experience, as the son of immigrants who came to the United States from Russia in the late 1800s. Later, Specter helped defeat legislation that would have stopped funding to “sanctuary cities” that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Fast-forward to 2017. Just a few days after President Trump was inaugurated, Senate candidate Josh Mandel, 40, proposed a bill that would ban Ohio’s cities from providing sanctuary and send their mayors to prison for doing so, to boot.
“Over our dead body will Cincinnati become a sanctuary city,” Mandel said when announcing the proposal that would threaten Cincinnati’s mayor with jail time as punishment for making Cincinnati “less safe against radical Islam.”
Mandel is a new kind of Jewish Republican, riding Trump’s coattails to storm the stage where senators Specter, Rudy Boschwitz and Jacob Javits used to sit. They were classic establishment conservatives who steered clear of controversial “values” issues while favoring fiscal restraint and a strong military. Mandel, in his second consecutive fight to unseat incumbent Sherrod Brown in 2018, has broken with that tradition — and with his own roots. Nothing in Mandel’s background would have predicted that he of all nice Jewish boys would hold Trump’s standard the highest. But however Mandel came to wave that flag — deep conviction, or political expediency — his candidacy is giving a state race national significance. The Mandel-Brown match-up is a referendum on the president’s popularity.
Results of recent gubernatorial and state elections held November 7, however, might give Mandel pause. In Virginia, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie tried to run a Trump-style campaign but lost.
Mandel’s campaign did not respond to the Forward’s repeated requests to interview the candidate for this article.
American Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic ever since President Franklin Roosevelt made them an essential element, along with Catholics and African Americans, of the coalition supporting the New Deal. With the one exception of Ronald Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980, they have usually voted Democrat 3-to-1. In 2016, Trump won 24% of the Jewish vote, compared with 71% that went to Hillary Clinton.
Mandel, however, is not the only one who’s creating a different way to be a Republican Jew: one who’s more in tune with the growing extreme right wing of the party than with the dwindling mainstream. In Missouri, Gov. Eric Greitens has promoted extreme anti-abortion policies. New York Rep. Lee Zeldin has emerged as one of Trump’s most vocal defenders. In the Jewish world, the Republican Jewish Coalition has embraced Trump. The Zionist Organization of America has vociferously defended Steve Bannon. And a new Orthodox Group, the Coalition for Jewish Values, is building a platform for a more politically conservative Jewish take on politics.
But Mandel is the most extreme of this breed. He has already been a moderate Republican and a tea partier, but now he’s a Bannonite. He’s allied himself with the loose confederation of white supremacists, anti-Semites, chauvinists and provocateurs who helped bring Trump to power — like Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, who propagated the conspiracy theory that the Democratic Party was running a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza joint. That’s something Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University, calls “historically new” for a Jew. But Mandel’s ideological and political evolution maps neatly onto broad trends in Republican politics.
“Where he is today surprised many who knew him in his early career as a moderate conservative,” said Herb Asher, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University and a close watcher of Ohio politics. Today, Asher said, Mandel is the “extreme far right.”
A Nice Jewish Boy From Beachwood
Mandel grew up in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, in the Democratic stronghold of Cuyahoga County. His family identified with Judaism’s Conservative movement when about 40% of American Jews did so. Mandel played softball at the Jewish community center and attended synagogue on holidays. His father, Bruce Mandel, is still one of the most prominent figures in Cleveland’s Jewish community, where he is involved in federation leadership, philanthropy and pro-Israel activism, according to local rabbis and communal activists who know the family.
“When you paint the picture of the all-American kid, Josh fits it. It’s almost a cliche,” said Joel Freimark, a classmate of Mandel’s from Beachwood High School. The school, he recalled, was “almost 90% Jewish.” In seventh and eighth grade there was a bar or bat mitzvah every weekend: “At the time, if you were from Beachwood, it was almost assumed you were Jewish.” In high school, Mandel played on the football team and was known as a popular kid who was always the one shouting out the loudest, “Go Beachwood, go Bisons,” at school events, said a friend from the time, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about Mandel.
The same was true for his time at Ohio State, the 45,000-student university in Columbus. “He knew everyone and really knew the scene,” the same friend said. Mandel ran for president of the student body in his junior year and won, serving two years as president. But back then there was hardly any ideology behind his college political activism, noted two of his college mates, who requested anonymity out of concern they’d harm their relationship with Mandel. As president, Mandel got freshmen students access to season football tickets, an achievement in which he took pride. Even at law school, where aspiring politicians often make themselves known, Mandel was something of an ideological cipher. He kept a “virtually invisible profile,” recalled a professor who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about former students. Classmates told the Forward they remember Mandel showing little interest in his Jewish faith, or in hot-button political issues such as immigration and sexual norms.
Still, by the time Mandel had left school, he was leaning Republican. His ambition and social skills as student president attracted attention, and Republicans, who won him over, courted him. “The Republicans just got him first,” a childhood friend said.
In 2000, Mandel enlisted in the Marines. He served for eight years as an intelligence specialist and did two tours of duty in Iraq, ending in 2008.
During that time, he continued to evince stellar political skills and a seeming disinterest in ideology. In 2004 he wrote a patriotic letter to his parents — and published it on Fox News’ website. “Iraq has changed the way I see the world and painted a clearer picture of how the world sees me as an American,” Mandel wrote as his first deployment came to an end. Describing the war as “just and for a good cause,” Mandel expressed his hope that “the American people will be able to stomach the sacrifice required to accomplish this complicated mission of destroying terrorism and developing democracy.”
Between tours, in 2003, he won a seat on the city council in Lyndhurst, Ohio, where he served until 2007. Lyndhurst is a suburb east of Cleveland where the trappings of elected office are not glamorous. The city’s council chambers share a room with its traffic court, and meetings focus on the kinds of questions that have a real effect on quality of life but rarely grab headlines, like road widening and a projected increase in the deer population. Mandel wasn’t very interested in those things, preferring the “sensational,” Mayor Patrick Ward said. In late 2004, for example, Mandel tapped into his campaign funds to send letters calling for the city to cut $400 checks to all the city’s property owners — the Lyndhurst equivalent of Buckeyes tickets. The city did eventually approve a property tax rollback, which came back to haunt it when the 2008 recession hit.
“A few of the former councilmen’s spending habits were not the sharpest,” said Vice Mayor Joseph Marko, who was on council with Mandel, referring to his idea for a taxpayer rebate.
What Mandel became known for, however, was his retail politicking and pleasing personality. Democrats and Republicans expressed in interviews their highly positive view of Mandel as a neighbor and candidate, even though they may not agree with his current politics.
“I think he knocked on every door twice,” Marko said. “And he carried that to his first state legislative race” — for the Ohio House of Representatives in 2006 — “knocking on doors, showing people the holes in his shoes.” Mandel won that race and served two terms. In late 2010 he was elected state treasurer.
And Further Right
That same year, he began to prepare his first run for Senate, and also began showing signs of his shift to the far right. Some, Asher said, attribute the move to his military service. But it may have also been part of the process many in the Republican Party were going through in the wake of their 2008 defeat. “What you’re seeing today is a progression,” Asher said. “He has shifted more than Ohio has. He stands out most.”
Much of Mandel’s focus in 2012 aligned with the tea party’s focus on attacking “Washington career politicians.” Mandel advocated a term limit for senators, and pledged to serve only one term if elected. He called for withholding salaries of congressmen if they didn’t pass a budget, and demanded that pensions be taken away from politicians who turn to lobbying after their career in Congress. He lost that race 45%–51%.
Now, his focus is different.
While not giving up his one-term pledge, Mandel devotes much of his time to one of Trump’s favorite issues — fighting Islamic terrorism. His views on global warming also put Mandel on the far end of the Republican spectrum. Mandel argues that climate change research is fraudulent, and supports the expansion of oil drilling and fracking. He mimics Trump’s attacks on the press. “I’m the type of leader who will take on forces in the media,” he said, referring repeatedly to “radical liberals in the media.”
“Josh will be the first to fight for the rights of the unborn,” he states on his campaign website, borrowing a term coined by Christian conservatives. “He supported legislation to prohibit abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat could be detected.”
Mandel’s shift away from Jewish norms culminated in his criticism of an iconic Jewish institution, the Anti-Defamation League, for its efforts to call out “alt-right” and “alt-light” extremists. This is the moment Mandel proclaimed common cause with Cernovich and Posobiec. Mandel would later go on to be the first endorsee of a super PAC set up by the two. “Mandel’s decision is an invitation to these racists and their brand of hate to come to Ohio,” one resident, Cindy Dempsey of Pepper Pike, wrote in a letter to the Cleveland Jewish News.
“It’s not how Beachwood High School raised us,” Freimark said.
From Beachwood To Washington?
Mandel is back in Beachwood, but in some ways he now lives on a different planet.
In 2008 he married Ilana Shafran, also a scion of a well-known and deeply rooted Jewish Cleveland family. She’s related to the Ratners, who founded the Forest City Enterprises real estate empire in Cleveland. The couple attends Green Road Synagogue, Beachwood’s oldest of three Orthodox synagogues. “Ilana comes pretty regularly, Josh less,” said Rabbi Binyamin Blau, who leads the congregation. Beyond that, however, Mandel’s connections with the Jewish community his father leads, the one he grew up in, are fraying.
In early September, Mandel announced his “faith outreach team,” tasked with conveying his message to religious communities in Ohio. It is made up of white Christian conservatives with no representation for Jewish, Muslim or African-American clergy. “That’s not a reflection of the constituency, and it’s just a shame,” said Allison Vann, rabbi of Suburban Temple-Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Beachwood. “There’s a growing rift between Josh Mandel and the Jewish community.” Chairing the faith outreach team is Ric Bower, an Anglican priest in Westerville. He rejected claims about the lack of diversity in the team as “fake news.”
Indeed, Mandel can expect a tough time reaching the pockets of major Ohio Jewish donors. In fact, he has thus far even failed to get his wife’s relatives, powerful political players, to back him financially. In Mandel’s previous run for Senate, in 2012, members of the Ratner family donated generously to his rival, Sherrod Brown. Nine of his wife’s relatives bought a full-page ad in the Cleveland Jewish News denouncing Mandel’s views on gay and lesbian rights. “Dear Josh,” the open letter reads. “Your discriminatory stance violates these core values of our family. Nevertheless we hope that over time, as you advance in years and wisdom, you will come to embrace the values of inclusiveness and equality as well.” Likewise, tapping the reservoir of Jewish donors in the state may be difficult for Mandel. Most are liberal, and the few Republican donors have yet to step in. Leslie Wexner, the fashion magnate who donated $5,000 for Mandel’s 2012 race, has since taken a forceful stance against Trump.
To be sure, Orthodox Jews have been a rising power in Republican politics in recent years, and an increasingly reliable part of the party’s base. Mandel may find Jewish supporters among them, as Orthodox donors have been playing a larger role in supporting candidates with socially conservative agendas.
“When Josh Mandel defeats Sherrod Brown next year, it will be very significant to have a Jewish Republican back in the U.S. Senate,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which has vowed to “invest significantly” in Mandel’s campaign. For Brooks, Mandel’s attack on the ADL is not out of bounds.
What’s more, Mandel is at his most Trumpian when it comes to campaign finance, relying on undisclosed donors through “dark money” financing, in which anonymous donors use not-for-profit entities to funnel money to political action committees. One of Mandel’s former aides, Joel Riter, now heads Freedom Frontier, a not-for-profit organization involved in political giving [that has backed a super PAC supportive of Greitens in Missouri and could be behind some of the “dark money” reaching Mandel.
A Tough Race To Win
CNN recently ranked the Ohio Senate race as one of 10 most likely seats to flip in the 2018 elections, noting that the race “should be a good test of whether Trump’s popularity transfers to other Republicans — or whether it was really his economic message that won the day in Ohio.”
First, Mandel must win the Republican primary in May. Mandel’s internal polling shows he enjoys a massive lead over rivals Mike Gibbons and Melissa Ackison, both struggling with low name recognition.
Mandel has largely ignored his primary rivals, focusing his messaging solely on Brown.
The Cook Political Report says the Ohio Senate race is “leaning democratic,” but competitive. Trump carried the state by 8% over Clinton. Ironically, the state’s most fervent Trump fans aren’t buying Mandel as a true anti-establishment candidate in the mold of the norm-busting U.S. president.
Mandel sometimes plays the role of an outsider but has spent his life in politics.
Citizens for Trump endorsed Gibbons, who, like Trump, comes to the race with a personal fortune.
“Mike is a successful businessman and not a career politician, and has never run for office before,” Citizens for Trump stated.
Mandel’s political path has run from the center to the extreme right, contrary to his Jewish Republican predecessors, who found their comfort zone in the political mainstream, seeking to avoid the margins on either side. Specter, in fact, even sought to correct course as his political career reached its final chapter. Feeling that his party has gone too far to the right on immigration and anti-LGBTQ legislation, Specter switched to the Democratic Party.
Mandel, at least for now, is on a different trajectory, as he completes his transformation into the face of the Bannon-wing of Republican politics.
With reporting by Brian Bardwell in Ohio